14 May 2007

ARH and FCS slashed.

ARH is the Armed Reconnaisance Helicopter program of the Army, and the less amibtious successor to the cancelled Comanche helicopter, which in turn is the successor the Kiowa helicopter. FCS is the Future Combat System, a big plan to replace all sorts of artillery, drones, vehicles, tanks, communications systems and weapons now in use, as part of an integrated system. Both are over budget and behind schedule research and development programs with timelines to slow to support the current war effort. The budgets for these two programs are being slashed in the House of Representatives right now according to Defense Tech.

The big trouble in the helicopter program is a surprise, as this was billed by Bell Helicopter as a nearly off the shelf, technologically unambitious program about a year ago. It was supposed to be a model of how much better Army procurement was than that in the Navy, Marines and Air Force. But, unit price bloat apparently caught up with the program, as prices per helicopter went from $5.2 million to just under $10 million. It appears that Congress will be asking the DOD to start over from scratch on the program by reopening the bidding on the program, killing the current ARH-70 program, but there is a fair reading of the news coverage that could imply a Deep Water style change of management of the program instead.

One wonders if Bell didn't overplay its cards by assuming that it had wiggle room to bloat cost under a GOP administration in wartime (perhaps with the promise of improved features), and then found itself outflanked by Democrats who preferred a competing bidder or simply didn't have any loyalty to Bell after the election.

The trouble with the Future Combat System, in contrast, is entirely predictable. It was an overambitious, unfocused, pie in the sky, big budget venture from the start, and is poorly understood even by those who are inclined to favor new advanced weapons for the Army. The idea of replacing everything a service uses in a single contract, echoed by the Coast Guard's Deep Water program, has again proven itself to be unworkable. The Army has been distancing itself from the seven years behind schedule original FCS model in any case, under the rubric of "spiral development" which amounts to breaking the FCS program up into individual weapons programs and developing them one at a time.

Incidentally, the Marine's Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program has also been sent back to the drawing board due to programs in the narrow, but technologically ambitious program. I suspect, however, that the Marine's track record of saving the Osprey, another narrow but ambitious program, will ultimately produce some EFV successor that works more or less as billed.

Is it too much to hope that top civilian officials and military brass will learn from these lessons and start to favor less technologically ambitious, focused, single product programs that are less likely to go overbudget or fall far behind schedule? Or, will it take the deep cuts looming on the horizon in the Joint Strike Fighter (i.e. F-35) program, which tried to be all things to all services, in order for this lesson to become conventional wisdom? My intuition is that the F-35C for navy carriers may never see more than a trial production run, and that the F-35A for the Air Force to replace the F-16 will see significant unit cuts before the program ends.

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